Since he was a child, Tenchi Masaki has wanted to sneak into the Masaki family shrine - the centerpiece of the temple/home he shares with his father and grandfather - but his grandfather keeps warning the boy away with legends of the demon who rests within. 700 years ago, the demon unleashed a wave of massive destruction, until a dragon-like ship came from the sky, bringing a warrior, Yosho, who sealed the demon in this cave with the power of a spiritual sword. Tenchi and his family are descended from Yosho and are tasked with guarding the shrine from intruders.
Tenchi is now a teenager, and just as eager to get in. One day, his grandfather catches Tenchi rifling through his office instead of doing chores, and challenges the boy to take the keys from him. Tenchi's attack is hurled aside... but he still managed to snatch the keys.
Entering the shrine, he finds a damp cave with some carvings on rocks and paper talismans strung about. Opening a ceremonial box, he finds the legendary sword. While the hilt is still an impressive piece of craftsmanship, the blade is all rusted and shatters when he knocks it against a rock. The rock suddenly splits, causing a chain reaction as stones start shifting throughout the room, ending with the opening of a hidden entrance.
Squeezing through, Tenchi slips down an elaborately tiled waterway, which takes him to a massive underground chamber, where streams are led to a central, glowing pool. At the center of the pool is a mummified body, wearing tattered wrappings and a kabuki mask. The demon.
Tenchi startles himself when he drops the sword hilt. Reaching down to pick it up, he's startled again when the demon's hand suddenly shoots out and grabs his wrist. Glowing lights start drifting through the air as the moaning demon rises up before him, stroking Tenchi's face and leaning in. The hilt in his hand suddenly flashes, forcing the demon back. It glares at Tenchi with eyes that start to glow. He scrabbles back up the waterway, doing his best to realign the stones in the outer chamber, and the hidden entrance slowly closes. Tenchi slumps to the ground, exhausted. The hilt is at his waist.
That night, a massive, ancient tree in a nearby pond starts raining streams of light, which band together and shoot into space as a single beam.
A few weeks later, summer vacation is over and Tenchi is back in school. He's examining the hilt between classes, tucking it in his pack when a friend approaches. They joke about the summer, but when the friend makes an innocent joke about Tenchi dating mummies, the memory flares in Tenchi. He floors his friend with a punch and stomps off in a huff.
He goes to the roof of the school to cool down, but ends up falling asleep. He wakes up after sunset and is about to head home when he sees a kitty. It meows and runs towards him, but just as he reaches to pick it up, it disappears. Hearing the jingle of bells, he turns to find a woman sitting on the water tower. She announces herself as Ryoko... and then her eyes glow. She's the demon. She wants revenge for the centuries spent locked up in the cave, and doesn't care if Tenchi isn't the one who put her there. She just wants to vent, and proceeds to attack him, devastating the school with energy blasts and a blade she forms around her hand, all while Tenchi runs like hell. He tries fighting back, but she also has super-strength and can fly and phase through walls, so he mainly just hides. He tries blowing her up with an ignited gas line at one point, but all that does is mess up her hair and piss her off.
Through it all, Tenchi eventually figures out that her power is tied to the beads embedded in her wrists. Using his pack to shield himself from an attack, the hilt is suddenly activated, forming a shield around Tenchi and extending a laser blade for him to fight back with. He scores a lucky hit, severing a hand and causing the bead to fall free, where it explodes. Ryoko sighs, the fight lost. She regenerates her hand, then bows and fades into the ground. Tenchi is left alone before the flaming school, which goes up in a final explosion. Sirens are approaching, so he gets the hell out of there.
Tenchi returns to his room, exhausted. He slumps onto his bed, then springs back up when he feels a lump under the sheets. Pulling them back, he finds a sleeping Ryoko. She opens her eyes and smiles, welcoming him home. Tenchi prays to the heavens.
To get some negatives out of the way, I have to admit that the character designs of Masaki Kajishima don't hold up as well as I hoped they would. Not the costumes, which are great and I'll be getting to later, but the faces. They're actually kinda ugly, which is a kick to my memory which once loved them. Maybe they get refined as things go along, but Tenchi's face is especially hard to look at, largely just being a spherical blob with some features taped on. Ryoko isn't too bad, but that's mostly because of the constant comical expressions of rage and destructive glee she's often wearing.
Another aspect that hurts to be reminded of is that Tenchi is kind of an asshole. I remember him being a pretty steady and innocent fellow, but here, so much devastation comes just because he wouldn't listen to his grandfather and keeps bungling into things he shouldn't have. He's also quite hyperactive, often bouncing from one extreme emotion to another in a way that's more annoying than it is humorous, and he thus also comes off as quite stupid. Now, to be fair, this is how most leads are in such shows, it's just that I remember him being more laid-back and level-headed. So this isn't so much a criticism as it is my memory bumping up against reality. Again, maybe this changes as things go along.
The way OVAs were set up back in the day, with only a single episode per tape being released once every several months, they had to grab people with an instant hook. While I admit the hook here is good - a boy's curiosity frees a demon, who gets loose and hunts him down, leading him to rise up and fight it off - it's also pretty basic stuff. There isn't much here to instantly separate it from the herd when one looks at the shows that came after, but it was pretty distinct back when it came out. I don't think all of the humor sells - especially with the Tenchi we get here - leaving the first half feeling a bit clumsy, and the grandfather feels very under-established (especially considering upcoming revelations), but the real highlight of the episode is when we get to the school and Ryoko's rampage is unleashed. The animation and layout is a real treat as Tenchi is just barely getting away from energy blasts that devastate the concrete structure, his luck even more admirable given how clearly and quickly they established just how heavy a hitter Ryoko is in the power department. I like little bits where he tries to stand up to her with the concrete pylon, or when he fakes her out by pointing and saying "What's that over there?!", scrabbling away when she actually stops to look. I think his revelation about the beads comes a little out of nowhere, but once the sword activates, we get some amazing shots of him reaching out for the hilt as Ryoko's blasts are diverted around him by the force shield. There's still lousy humor, with him giving away his hiding place by shouting out the battle plan he's proud to have come up with, or barking out laughter while he applauds Ryoko's final display, but the sequence itself is largely very well done and exciting. And I do love the final moment of him standing before his ravaged school, then tearing out so nobody will catch him there.
Ryoko's introduction is wonderful. I forgot just how amazing her mummified corpse looks in the underground pool, or the tender moment where she seems to be pulling Tenchi in for a kiss. When we see her later, fully regenerated, I like how sad she is as she remembers the suffering she went through, which is quickly contrasted by her saying she doesn't care who she gets revenge against as long as it cheers her up, howling out laughter around her bared fangs as she unleashes blast after blast against Tenchi. The moment of humor of her stopping to pretty herself up before a mirror doesn't work as well as the sudden innocence of her wanting to see what Tenchi was pointing at, but I like how they show the full range of this character, often impulsive and always extreme.
To finally get back to the costumes, one problem with most of the harem anime that came in the wake of Tenchi was this constant desire to hypersexualize all of the women (and girls *shudder*), with outfits of increasing ridiculousness that always highlight bouncing assets, whether it fits the personality of the character or not. Not so, here. We'll see this even more with Ayeka, but Ryoko already has a design that runs counter to its followers in that she's almost completely covered, from her buttoned collar, to long sleaves, to the skirts that go well past her knee, and instead of being formfitting, it's loose and baggy, looking like something comfortable for a super-powered being to fly around and battle in. I'm no prude, but it is refreshing to see a character who sells her sexiness through her personality and poise instead of a skimpy wardrobe. Even when her chest is partially bared in Tenchi's bedroom, it's a very chaste tease and the moment doesn't linger.
This is all quite surprising since designer Kajishima, who was also the co-creator and animation director, came out of porn and continued doing porn well after this series was a success. There's many ways in which this one storyline could have devolved into fanservice, and many other creators would have and did take it there, but beyond that one brief moment, it lets the focus be on neat clothes and action and a hapless hero running for his life against some spectre of the forgotten past. While Tenchi will come to share many roots with the moe harem subgenre that followed, I'm pleased to see the costume design isn't one of them.
Overall, this is a good episode. Not bad, but not great either. It's an interesting hook, but also a display of the times in which it was made, and it's only in subtle ways that it stands out among the mass of derivatives which followed, a few of which were, let's be honest, better. Also, Tenchi as a lead doesn't quite live up to my memory, but I'll give him and the show a fare shake to see how they develop over time.
- At two minutes, the opening title sequence drags. It's great seeing all the familiar faces we'll be re-introduced to over the next few episodes, but the lyricless theme, while nice, is very repetitive, and it's just too damn long. However, it does capture the central stylistic motif of this showing being about the old mixed with the new, of ancient shinto designs and legendary sagas shown through the neon glow of the early 90s.
- And speaking of the early 90s, take a gander at Tenchi's rat tail. Hello, ladies!
- And speaking of old meeting new, this was my introduction to the No theater sounds of a singer going "Dh'oooooooo!" while wooden instruments clunk. It's a great sound and I always loved how they'd use it to close episodes on punctuated awkward beats.
- The closing sequence is also way too long, and I'm not sure why Ryo-Ohki is the central focus, given that he hasn't been introduced yet. The cartoony style is charming and all, as is his tale with the carrot, but it just doesn't fit.
- Do we ever see Tenchi's friend again? The hefty dude he socked into the lockers? I can't remember.
- Speaking of things I don't remember, curious to see if the disappearing cat is ever explained.
Though I have much nostalgia for the dubbed version of the franchise, since that's entirely how I saw it back in the 90s, I wanted my evaluations to be based on the original Japanese versions for authenticity's sake. But since I have to watch each episode a second time for the synopsis, it gives me a chance to check out the dubs, too.
Overall, it's a good dub. The actors all fit the parts and perform well. The dialogue reworks some lines here and there, but never loses their original meanings and largely stays true to the original script. It does add a few lines where nothing was originally spoken, but they're all incidental moments that still feel natural and don't intrude.
Petra Burchard is great as Ryoko, capturing her age and power while also bouncing around the character's constant emotional shifts. I'm surprised to read that, aside from a part in Serial Experiments Lain, doing Ryoko for years makes up the entirety of Burchard's anime voice acting work. Otherwise, she's a classically trained Shakespearean actor with a long career of frequent television guest spots, and in recent years is a published author and columnist.
As for Tenchi, I think I figured out why my memory of the character runs so contrary to how he comes off in the Japanese version. Kermit Miller (Kermit is his middle name and he uses his first name, Matthew, in his work as a playwright) has a charming, nasally, everyman quality that sound an awful lot like... well, like Kermit the Frog. He gives the character a likeable dweebishness that's instantly endearing and cuts a lot of the annoyance out of the comedy. I'd go so far as to say it's an improvement, but I'll hold off on that ultimatum until I get further into the franchise.